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Oscars: Could Critical Favorites ‘Act Of Killing’ & ‘Stories We Tell’ Miss Out On Documentary Nominations?

Oscars: Could Critical Favorites 'Act Of Killing' & 'Stories We Tell' Miss Out On Documentary Nominations?

Over the past weeks and months, we’ve used this space to take a close look at almost every Oscar category (bar the shorts: we’ll focus on those once the nominations are out and we’ve seen the films), and making our rolling predictions in the process. Just in time for Christmas, we’ve reached the end, with just one category left: Documentary.

We made our picks of the best documentaries of 2013 last week, and there’s a fair amount of crossover with the 15-strong shortlist announced by the Academy a few weeks ago. We included “The Act of Killing,” “Blackfish,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “God Loves Uganda,” “Stories We Tell” and “20 Feet From Stardom,” all put forward by the Oscar nominating committee, who also picked “The Armstrong Lie,” “The Crash Reel,” “Dirty Wars,” “First Cousin Once Removed,” “Life According To Sam,” “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” “The Square,” “Tim’s Vermeer” and “Which Way Is The Front Line From Here; The Life And Times Of Tim Hetherington.”

As for which will make the five-strong list of nominated films in January, that’s a difficult question to answer: the branch has traditionally and controversially overlooked major movies, with crowning achievements like “Shoah,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “Roger & Me,” “Touching The Void,” “Grizzly Man,” “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” all going without a nomination, while more heart-stirring or issues-driven films picking up nods in their place. And there’s already been controversy this year: we’re smarting from the absence of “At Berkeley” and especially “After Tiller” from this year’s shortlist, even if we’re not particularly surprised.

What else will be left on the outside when the nominations are announced? The lower-profile films on the list are the most immediately vulnerable, and that probably means HBO‘s “First Cousin Once Removed,” about Alzheimer’s-inflicted poet Edwin Honig, and “Life According to Sam,” about a kid with a premature-aging disease called progeria. Alan Berliner, director of the former, has never really cracked Academy recognition, and this is probably the longest-shot on the list, but ‘Sam’ is a more obvious tearjerker, and directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix were nominated in 2007 for “War Dance,” and won the short documentary Oscar earlier this year for “Inocente,” so they could be potential dark horses, even if we think they’ll ultimately miss out.

On a more issues-driven level, there’s “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” about the incarcerated Russian band, and “Which Way Is The Front Line?,” a tribute to late war photographer Tim Hetherington (who was nominated for co-directing the excellent “Restrepo” in 2011, before his tragic death in Libya later that year). The former’s probably a little too abrasive for Academy members, and suggestions that the band’s members could be freed soon might dull the potential political impact of nomination, so odds are fairly slim there. The idea of nominating Sebastian Junger’s tribute to his “Restrepo” co-director could be irresistible to some, but it’ll probably be edged out by more widely acclaimed works, though shouldn’t be totally discounted.

Meanwhile, films about U.S. foreign policy have had a fair amount of success in recent years, so “Dirty Wars” has some chance, but probably would have been more of a force to be reckoned with a few years back, when that sort of thing was more zeitgeisty—a look at the nomination line-up of the last few years suggests that voters have been keen to recognize other fare. Some have criticized the way director Richard Rowley focuses so heavily on journalist Jeremy Scahill, the author of the book on which the film is based, which might also hamper its chances a little.

Of a higher profile are “God Loves Uganda,” about the influence of American mega-churches on the homophobic laws in the Ugandan country, and “Cutie and the Boxer,” about painters Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. Both have strong reviews, and seem to tick some boxes, but are perhaps destined to be overshadowed by films that seem more significant. The same is probably true of “The Crash Reel”: Lucy Walker has two prior nominations for “Waste Land” and “The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom,” but sporting documentaries often have difficulty getting traction (though “Undefeated” won two years ago), and a film focusing on snowboarding may not appeal massively to Academy members. Alex Gibney‘s “The Armstrong Lie” might have a better chance with a more famous subject, but while reasonably compelling, it’s not the director’s best work, and never proves especially revelatory.

That leaves six movies that we would say are serious nomination contenders, but again, this category could see only a couple of them eventually making the grade. “Tim’s Vermeer,” directed by magician Teller, is an accessible and even shocking film that’s getting a serious push from Sony Pictures Classics. It’s serious and substantial, but deceptively so, and while it’s a definite contender, the celeb-fronted image and “Mythbusters“-like tone might see voters looking for more obviously “important” work. “20 Feet From Stardom“‘ has been a crowd-pleasing hit—the biggest grossing doc of the year—and has a similar recognizing-the-unsung feel to last year’s “Searching For Sugar Man.” It doesn’t have quite the same reviews, but with The Weinstein Company‘s backing, is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Meanwhile, “Blackfish,” also a substantial hit, and one that’s been a real force for change in its exposure of working practices at SeaWorld, is one of the more high-profile films on the list, and is similar in theme to “The Cove,” which took the prize in 2010. It’s not nearly as well made as that film, but will likely be among the final five, barring a real shock. Also looking promising is “The Square.” Not only does the Egyptian film document vital recent history in its depiction of the recent revolution in Egypt, but it already has the thumbs up from awards-givers already, it was the People’s Choice Award winner at TIFF this year, and last week took the top prize from the IDA. Not just a potential nominee, but a potential winner too.

And then, finally, there’s “The Act of Killing” and “Stories We Tell,” two critical darlings that are probably the most high-profile films on the list—they’re cropping up on not just lists of the best documentaries of 2013, but many critics’ top 10s of all movies. Which we worry might make them targets for that “Hoop Dreams” snub shot. More formally adventurous work like these films doesn’t always win favor with the documentary branch, and the amount of dramatic reconstruction in ‘Stories,’ and the idea that it’s been made by an outsider from the world, make it more potentially vulnerable that ‘Killing,’ which has had the thumbs up from some venerable non-fiction filmmakers already.

We think “The Act of Killing” is probably safe, and our bet is that the critical adulation over “Stories We Tell” will just see it edge out “Tim’s Vermeer,” but don’t be surprised if Sarah Polley’s film ends up being snubbed either. Full prediction below, along with this week’s Best Picture chart, and stay tuned for more awards coverage later in the week .

Best Documentary Predictions – Monday December 16th

“The Act Of Killing”


“The Square”

“Stories We Tell”

“20 Feet From Stardom” 

Best Picture Chart – Monday December 16th

1. “12 Years A Slave” (3)

Had exactly the week it needed to, with a hefty haul of nominations from the SAG, Critics Choice Awards and the Globes, putting it right back in the front seat. The SAG in particular is a good sign: an indicator that worries about Academy membership not watching the film may have been overstated. The film still has real threats, but if the PGA and DGA go for this as well, its lead will open up.

2. “Gravity” (1)

As we said, this was never going to top the nominations for last week’s awards, but this did about as it could have done, so it’s not been harmed in the least. Honestly, this might come down to the question of how many Academy members saw it in theaters, and how many caught screeners. And how much bias remains against sci-fi (and yeah, the film’s only vaguely sci-fi, but to voters, it very much is)? No film in the genre has ever won Best Picture.

3. “American Hustle” (2)

Had a pretty terrific week too, tying ‘Slave’ for the most Globes and BFCA nods, coming second with SAG, and opening with the biggest screen average of the year. It’s clearly picking up a bunch of nominations, but the question is, how many: if, like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it overperforms and picks up things like editing and unexpected acting nods, it could threaten for the win. If not, it’s likely a two-horse race.

4. “Nebraska” (5)

A big winner with the Globes, but perhaps more crucially, missed out on a SAG nod. Certainly beloved of voters, but it’s possible to see Alexander Payne missing out on a nomination in favor of Spike Jonze, Martin Scorsese or Paul Greengrass. And let’s be honest, it’s not going to win Best Picture.

5. “Captain Phillips” (8)

The buzz had been petering out here, but the film got an important boost last week (though the Globes have limited predictive value, a nomination for Greengrass was an important one to get), at least getting its name back in the conversation. Had Hanks or Abdi missed out with the SAG, we’d have continued to worry about its Best Picture slot, but it should be safe and home unless the other guilds pass it over.

6. “Saving Mr Banks” (4)

Probably had the worst week of all the contenders: missed an SAG ensemble prize, and underperformed severely with the Golden Globes (though fared better with Critics Choice today. Was never going to be a critical favorite, really, but a weakness with the guild is more worrisome. It’s certainly not going to be the potential spoiler to win Best Picture that some feared it might be, and for the first time, we’re even wondering if it could miss the cut.

7. “Dallas Buyers Club” (13)

A big winner last week, taking the SAG ensemble nomination that many had earmarked for ‘Banks.’ There’s a lot of love for this movie out there, clearly, that goes beyond just the performances. That said, there might still be more passionate love for the more auteur-driven picks.

8. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (11)

Ok, yeah, we’d
been skeptical about this, but the SAG falling for it in a big way
certainly suggests this could grab that “Help” slot.
Ignored entirely by the Globes, but that’s not something to worry about
particularly, it was never their kind of movie. And while it was mostly passed over by the BFCA, as a critics’ group, they tend to favor things like “Her” over this (last year, they nominated “The Master” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” which both missed with the Academy in the main category). That said, we maintain
that, with a Best Picture nod, it’ll still have a tough task picking up
more nods than Oprah, possibly Forest Whitaker, and maybe Screenplay. 

9. “Her” (6)

Still winning heaps of love from critics and year-end lists, but missed out entirely with the SAG, who could have cemented its place with a nod for Joaquin Phoenix or the ensemble. That’s rekindled our worries about the film’s ability to connect with older voters: we’ll see what the PGA and DGA have to say about it.

10. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (7)

Some love from the Globes, nothing from the SAG (who mostly didn’t see it in time), and the exact extent of how hardcore the film is has rapidly become apparent. Its biggest problem might be the strength of “American Hustle,’ which is as close to Scorsese as you could ask for, but perhaps a little more palatable for audiences made nervous by dwarf-throwing and coke being placed in private places. But could the younger contigent of the Academy be vocal enough that this gains precedence over “The Butler” or “Mr. Banks” and co.

11. “Philomena” (9)

The Globes loved it, but it’s seemed to connect with European audiences more than U.S (though the film’s doing very well at the box office domestically too). Likely to be the top choice of the substantial British voting block, which could be enough to put it over the edge (“Gravity,” “12 Years A Slave” and “Saving Mr Banks” all have U.K backing, but less obviously), but “The Butler” may have edged ahead of it in terms of Weinstein support.

12. “August Osage County” (15)

Lots of attention from the SAG, but it’s worth noting that, sometimes, the ensemble prize from the SAG rewards the Most Actors, rather than the Best Actors (a naggling doubt we still share about “The Butler,” but that seems to have wider support) — remember “Best Exotic Marigold Hotels,” or “Bridesmaids,” or “Nine,” or “American Gangster?” It could figure in, but we’re yet to hear about anyone who really loves it unreservedly.

13. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (10)

Nowt from the SAG, so again, we fear that it might be a little too prickly for the Academy. Nothing will make us sadder this year.

14. “All Is Lost” (12)

Just when things were looking up, the SAG snub Robert Redford, and the film’s Best Picture chances all but evaporate. We still think Redford can make it to an Oscar nomination, but the film seems like an increasingly long-shot.

15. “Rush” (-)

Seemingly dropped out of the race a while ago, but performed better-than-expected with the Globes, and Daniel Bruhl came roaring back into the race with an SAG nod. Still a very long shot, but the film’s likable, and it’s likely to play better on a screener over the holidays than some of these other potentials.

Bubbling Under: “Fruitvale Station,” “Lone Survivor,” “The Book Thief,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.”

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